by Gayla Chaney

They were once hungry for change. Now, they are just hungry.

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"I miss my thumbs." This is Horace's favorite refrain. It ends all discussions of rearming, which are pointless, anyway. Even if we could round up a ragtag army, even if we could find a cache of operable weapons, even if we could locate the enemy all in one place waiting for us to seek some revenge, we'd still have trouble locating ammo. It's gone, along with the manufacturing sites, surplus stores, roadside stalls, mail order, and as far as we're concerned, the black market, too. All those hubs of industry from our previous existence have vanished. The memories of them are now blanketed under a murky miasma that lingers around us constantly, inescapable and almost unbearable.

The excitement of competition once enticed us. Arrogance blurred our vision. We foolishly cut the tethers to that now-gone world. Without a thought of what might be lost, we stampeded toward a cataclysmic cliff, racing, as if in a dream, to leap into our present nightmare.

My own exposure to actual combat was limited. The job I had been assigned was in requisitioning and storage, also known as stealing and hoarding. Those of us in charge of supplies frequently found ourselves the targets of roaming bands of starving survivors. It was ugly there for awhile. But now that many have died, things are better.

Talk around here sometimes lights a fire under the younger ones, the ones who didn't actually serve on the front lines. It takes those soldiers who managed to return to bring the tribe back to reality. Our surviving militia came back without their thumbs. Some were blind, too. All were maimed in body or soul, or both. That's the aftermath of losing, I guess.

I wonder about the other side, the so-called winners of this war. "To the victors go the spoils," seems like a sick joke or a cosmic double-cross. Disease and famine amid smoldering rubble—is that the prize? Streets lined with rotting corpses stacked as barricades, carcasses too putrid to be consumed, and the stench of death wafting over everything. Who would want to be the victors if they knew the reward was merely to pillage and plunder those razed towns?

I see madness reflected in the eyes of nearly all survivors. Where are the ticker-tape parades? Where are those beautiful girls waving flags and flowers, ready to bestow kisses on any soldier within their reach? Where are the promises of peace that should follow any conflict? What was the point? These are the questions I'd like to ask around the campfire, but I don't.

Most of the POWs were executed. Some surviving soldiers, like Horace, were mutilated and then sent home to relate the horrors they had seen and experienced. Many were butchered by starving villagers. Cannibalism lost any and all taboo status. Salvageable flesh from any source became stew meat.

Horace often reminisces about being a soldier, drifting into tragic tales of valor and sacrifice before recalling the ultimate defeat that cost him his thumbs. "No way would I be much of a soldier today. Not much good as a farmer either. Or a carpenter. But I'm good as a bard." He grins. "And I am excellent as a signaler."

"No argument here," one of the other old soldiers chimes in, giving Horace the praise he craves.

When we asked why he was spared, Horace explained his release with a Chinese proverb: "They torture the chickens in order to scare the monkeys." He winked and added, "I borrowed that from a wounded Chinaman. Then, I modified it to fit." Horace has a lot of modified expressions, which, sooner or later, he gladly shares with our small clan as we huddle around the evening campfire.

"Still, I wish they hadn't taken my thumbs. That was cruel." As he focuses on his thumbless hands, he shakes his head and mutters, "Downright malicious." Silence falls on our little band.

No one dares speak until Horace shakes the mood by bellowing out some line from a song that rumbles in his head. Tonight it is a Woody Guthrie tune that breaks the spell. "This land is your land… This land is my land, from California to the New York Islands. From the redwood forest to the gulf stream water, this land was made for you and me!"

Some of the others join in meekly. It makes Horace happy to lead us in song, but it can also cause him to erupt if someone gets a line wrong. It's a precarious endeavor to sing along with Horace. I usually drop my head or stare into the fire, hoping everyone remembers the words, or at least can match Horace's version.

The cool autumn wind reminds us that winter is coming and with it, the hardships that the cold creates. Last year we lost three members of our group. I dread the cold. I wish we could go south, but Horace says that it's worse down there. I wonder how he knows that. His health is failing, and maybe he fears we would not survive without him, should he succumb to the rigors of the trip. His cunning has saved the group numerous times. Even so, I wish we could escape the coming snow.

Abruptly, our song stops. Horace has raised his hand to silence us as he tilts his head slightly to the right. He indicates by this movement that he heard a sound in the brambles, and we all know what must be done when his signal is given. It is us or them. Horace has explained this principle on many occasions. Yet, I wonder if we might not be too quick to assess strangers as enemies.

I have no time to ponder that for Horace lets out his infamous, screeching signal. Everyone rushes the dark perimeter. They scream, imitating Horace as best they can while thrashing the darkness with their clubs and ropes and knives. Our firelight and singing, once again, has lured in another straggler.

"Moths to the flame," Horace speaks as the unwitting prisoner is dragged before him. I secretly hope it isn't just some poor, hungry youth. It is easier to witness the execution if the victim looks like a villain, if he or she is marked with the tattoo of some other clan. If the captive has an accomplice with him or is armed with weapons, then I can believe Horace's claim of, "Us or them."

However, if the prisoner looks like one of us, it's harder. When I smell his flesh roasting, I get a sick feeling inside, like maybe we are no better than the hungry intruders we snare. Are we really the good guys, or has our humanity been modified like one of Horace's proverbs?

I start to contemplate that, but then my own hunger takes control. The flames from the hickory wood plume, and I find myself joining in the camaraderie, sharing in the feast that the campfire has brought us, mindless of the darkness lapping at the borders of our camp as Horace bellows out a phrase and leads us in song.




Copyright © 2009 Gayla Chaney

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Gayla Chaney's work has recently appeared in 2008 Best Modern Voices: Words for the New Millennium. She lives and writes in central Texas.

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